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Tonya Kay: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand”

Align with like-brands at or slightly above your tier. You don’t need anything from them, so don’t hound them — a collaboration will happen organically as it’s meant to. You just need them to know you exist! … I love reaching out to vintage fashion retailers, automotive photographers, pinup-centric publications, greasers, throwback musicians, pinup artists, and aerial studios. Eventually, it all becomes one big family. A family that knows each others’ professional niches within our shared community and thinks of each others’ work at the right time.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Tonya Kay. Tonya Kay is a performer, producer, and director in Los Angeles, CA. Her tv/film directing work has premiered on The CW and garnered robust awards including the AT&T SHAPE Film Awards. Her latest short film, The Ascension of Ava Delaine, is collaborating with IBM Watson and is being distributed to public outlets by Hewes Pictures in 2020. Tonya Kay has created three full-length, sell-out productions; Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show, Xtreme Rhythm Theatre and her latest collaboration with the Independent Shakespeare Co, Anita Berber Is Dead. You can see her performances on tv (Glee, The Fosters), film (Lone Ranger, The Muppets Movie), stage (STOMP, De La Guarda) and tour (Panic At The Disco, Kenny Rogers).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been making movies even when all I had was my parents’ VHS camera! I’ve always been choreographing dances or teaching dance. I remember seeing two a cappella tap dancers on Star Search when I was just 4 years old — they got me inspired to train. But it’s mostly my parents who brought me along to the community theatre production they were auditioning for when I was just 6. My parents made entertainment something you did with family — we sang, danced, rehearsed lines together in the living room and it was all the fun this child would imagine having. Moms and dads, you matter!

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Haha. Well, I created, choreographed and directed a full-length stage production titled Xtreme Rhythm Theatre and our producer allowed me, as a visual artist, to design our t-shirts. I drew a city skyline with drums and musical instruments exploding from the sky, but maybe I was too tired or just doing too much, but I misspelled the name of our show. On our t-shirts. When the shirts came back, we were all shocked to see I’d added a silent “n” to the word rhythm. Always have six people check your work before going to print!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes my company, Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show stand out is that we added a twist on an already popular art genre. Everyone loves classic car culture, especially when combined with retro pinup girls. But I wanted to make our take on that memorable. So I threw in aerial pole dance! The key is, you have to do each aspect beautifully if you are going to add a deviation. No one can question if you are classic car-enough, pinup-enough or pole enough. Adding an outside element to an established art genre means all aspects of your product have to be inscrutably awe-inspiring.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am! I have created a dark musical, Anita Berber Is Dead, with the Independent Shakespeare Co. This is a two hour musical with 27 original songs and 15 original dance pieces about Anita Berber, a historical bi-sexual nude dancer who took 1920s Berlin by storm. This production is relevant to the feminist, anti-capitalist, inclusive spirit of 2020’s the United States and as much as we need art that reminds us to laugh and appreciate the good things, we also need art that understands what we are going through without distraction. That’s Anita Berber Is Dead.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I call the brand marketing hype. As a producer, it is my full-time job to generate hype for my productions. Hype (aka brand building) does not have a direct return. BUT after a brand is built, it can carry a lot of the hard work for you. Product marketing is focused on selling a product and making immediate money. To fit this definition onto my model, one of my brands is Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show and one of the products for that brand is our live events. There is a big difference between building my brand (an ongoing process with no direct return) and selling a ticket to my shows (a per event process that yields immediate return).

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Generally, a brand takes 3–5 years to build. But after it’s built, like I mentioned, it will do a lot of your marketing, producing, sales work for you. So I can focus on selling all the tickets to one of my events, let's say — and to do that, I’d call every colleague I know and tell them to buy tickets to my show. But after a few years of brand building, sponsors call me. Guests recognize our name when they see a poster for our next event AND they feel like they want to join in. Other like-brands contact us for related job-offers like music videos, published modeling or event entertainment. Once I have my brand solid and well-loved, I can also explore different products instead of just say, our live show. I have also started writing under my brand for the RacingJunk automotive magazine and am soon to produce scripted films. Which are all allowed — as long as it’s on-brand! If I were to just sell one product after another, I wouldn’t have pre-built hype looking forward to *whatever it is* the brand creates next.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

I started building the brand of Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show before there was even a show! These five things can be done early or late in the process. It’s never too soon to start:

  1. Choose 3–5 key words. When people think of these words, you want them to think of your brand. Or to put it into tech-mind; think of these 3–5 keywords as your hashtags. They are also your search terms. If someone were to click that hashtag or search that keyword, you’d want your brand at the top of the results.
  2. Run every move you make through your keywords. 90% of your posts, flyers, production numbers, accepted-sponsors, satellite events should match these keywords. If they don’t, don’t do it. My company’s branding keywords are pretty clear: pinup, classic cars, pole dance, retro fashion, cheeky fun (and variations thereof). I might love 2020 BMW i8s, but I wouldn’t post a photo of it on our brand accounts because of off-brand. I might love suggestive auto/model photography, but I nix a photo of my models if it’s dark and sexy because of off-brand. A fantastic swimsuit sponsor may contact me to collaborate, but if their designs aren’t retro, we don’t model them. Consistency is key to brand-building.
  3. Align with like-brands at or slightly above your tier. You don’t need anything from them, so don’t hound them — a collaboration will happen organically as it’s meant to. You just need them to know you exist! For Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show, I love reaching out to vintage fashion retailers, automotive photographers, pinup-centric publications, greasers, throwback musicians, pinup artists, and aerial studios. Eventually, it all becomes one big family. A family that knows each others’ professional niches within our shared community and thinks of each others’ work at the right time.
  4. Photos and video key impression-makers. I staged a photoshoot and edited our first promo video before I even had company members or a single choreographed act for the production. Photos and videos are key at any point in the brand-building process to generating that feeling you want your audience to have when they think of you. The feelings my brand connects within people: cheeky, fun, inclusive, body-positive, grounded and do-it-yourself (home mechanics, design-builders and self-taught models).
  5. Face time — support others’ like-brands’ work and events. Online is strong, but nothing creates a better connection than in-person support. If you hire spokesmodels, make sure they truly can represent your brand without your direction. But get out there yourself. YOU are the creator and you are the most important face connected to your brand’s direction. I support art shows, take my classic car to cruise-ins, attend aerial stage productions, take local pole classes and show up at fashion events because that’s where my colleagues are and there’s nothing like supporting others’ endeavors to inspire them to send the same support your way.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I’m impressed by Matthew Kenney Cuisine. He’s a friend and I’ve watched him build his brand from a local restaurant in NYC to an international standard for all things culinary. No, his brand has very little to do with mine (except that his cuisine is all vegan and so are all my performers!) but there is much to learn from watching his brand-building. His brand is upscale, plant-based cuisine. His cuisine’s keywords IMO would be: compassionate, intelligent, surprising, daring, delicate. The feeling I experience when I eat or think of his food experiences is: thoroughly cared-for. Matthew went from owning a single restaurant in NYC to writing 12 cuisine books, opening multiple culinary training academies, selling his own food product line, owning numerous restaurants across the globe and creating plant-based menus for upscale hotel chains and bakeries. His brand is one to watch.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand-building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

It’s difficult to measure the success of brand-building because it takes so long! Brand-building relies on social consciousness, so of course, it takes longer than making a sale. I’d say a brand-building *campaign* is successful if people have seen and felt your brand. But how do you rank the success (if you are a big company putting oodles of dollars into this campaign?). Have each campaign end with a call to action: “hashtag this and like this”, “post a video of you doing the funky chicken”, “come to Grand Central and ask one of our models for a free sample”, “donate to our fundraiser”. These action-based campaigns are one way a company could judge a brand-building campaign’s success — through engagement. But remember, building a brand doesn’t have to involve a scrutable campaign. And honestly, an actual campaign with engagement goals can end up feeling shallow and a lot like marketing, basically evoking the opposite feeling the brand wants to build in their audience. So my advice is to be careful with goal-oriented brand-building campaigns.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media plays a big role in my company’s branding. First of all, the small brand will appreciate that social media is free (you don’t have to promote your posts), so with the exception of Facebook, that squashes unprompted Business Page posts through stifling algorithms, Instagram is useful for posting photos and Twitter is useful for sharing linkable information. Social media is also useful in branding if you are trying to build a national or international brand. And remember, on social media, what you share, what you like, how you comment, how you reply are all as much brand builders as your organic post.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

We all get sick. We all experience tragedy. We all die. No job or brand is as important as you and your loved one’s health and sanity. Always prioritize LIFE before business. If you notice you’ve overcommitted and are unhappily running in circles, stop. Take a month off. Visit a family member out of state. Get off social media for a week. Slow your roll. Business will be there when you come back. If you come back. But life can absolutely pass you by.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Legalize marijuana, ban animals in circuses, return funding for the Arts to the United States and elect Bernie 2020.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Get some fun out of life” — Billie Holiday. Lives are too short to waste then doing things you don’t enjoy to make money you don’t need to have things you don’t want. Billie’s song lyrics remind me to state my priorities daily.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I’d love to have juice with Bud Brutsman of BCII TV!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow me and my brand here:

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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